New Dallas Mavericks CEO Has A Big Job Ahead Of Her

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 12:46 pm
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Like most NBA teams, the Dallas Mavericks are watching the current playoffs. They have not made the postseason for two years. But there are bigger problems facing this team that's owned by billionaire and TV personality Mark Cuban. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated revealed a corporate workplace rife with sexual harassment and abuse. Cuban hired a dynamic new CEO to help deal with the scandal. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Cynthia Marshall is determined to make the Mavericks a shining example for the NBA. And just a warning to listeners, there is graphic language in this story.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: On a recent morning in Dallas at the Mavericks headquarters, employees were gathering for a respect in the workplace meeting. It felt more like a party.

CYNTHIA MARSHALL: How's everybody?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: All right. How are you?

MARSHALL: Awesome.

GOLDMAN: CEO Cynthia Marshall - she insists you call her Cynt - greeted about 30 people as they filed into the training session. The business at hand was serious - reforming a toxic workplace. But for Marshall, the path to reform is lined with high fives, hanging out and getting people pumped the way she did a long time ago as a cheerleader at UC Berkeley.

MARSHALL: So we are team Mavs. Somebody say we are team Mavs.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We are team Mavs.

MARSHALL: Y'all can get louder than that. We are team Mavs.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We are team Mavs.

MARSHALL: Yes, we are. We are team players. We are empowered. We are ambitious, motivated. Do I sound like I'm motivated?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

MARSHALL: I'm juiced. I'm fired up. I love this job.

GOLDMAN: After kicking off the session, Marshall headed for the door but then stopped, bent down and wiped up a few drops of her spilled coffee.

MARSHALL: You have to clean up your own messes in more ways than one.

GOLDMAN: The metaphor was unavoidable. She is the cleanup person even though she didn't make the Mavs' mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: SI interviewed more than a dozen current and former Mavericks employees. They describe the basketball team's corporate culture as predatory.

GOLDMAN: In February, a Sports Illustrated investigation described the Mavs' corporate culture, not the basketball side, as a real life "Animal House." Allegations of verbal and sexual harassment stretch back more than two decades. Many of the complaints involved former Mavs CEO Terdema Ussery.

MELISSA WEISHAUPT: My name is Melissa Weishaupt.

GOLDMAN: A former Mavs marketing manager, Weishaupt was the first harassment victim to go public. She described an incident with Ussery not long after she was hired in 2010. She was eating dinner with co-workers before a game when Ussery joined them and asked what people were doing for the upcoming weekend. A warning - what follows is explicit sexual language.

WEISHAUPT: And he goes, oh, I know what you're going to do this weekend, Melissa. And I go, oh, you do? What am I going to do this weekend? And he goes, oh, you're going to get gangbanged this weekend. And everybody at the table went silent.

GOLDMAN: Weishaupt says when she complained to Ussery later, he laughed it off. Ussery denied the allegations against him and left the Mavs in 2015. Weishaupt left the year before. Cynt Marshall knew nothing about this or Mavs owner Mark Cuban when he called her in February. His organization was in a crisis. He needed help, and Marshall had been recommended by her former company, AT&T, where she'd done great work as a human resources expert. When Cuban phoned, Marshall was on another call.

MARSHALL: And so my husband came back and he said, you need to get off that call. That's Mark Cuban. I said, who is that? He said, "Shark Tank," the billionaire, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Get off that phone (laughter).

GOLDMAN: She talked to Cuban and agreed to meet. Before they did, she read the article.

MARSHALL: And I'm reading about it, and I'm getting sick. Like, what's going on in this place? I mean, this culture's bad. I don't know if I want to do this.

GOLDMAN: But after their meeting, Marshall believed Cuban genuinely wanted to remake the Mavs culture. She did, too.

MARSHALL: Because you know what? I'm yelling at the TV all the time when something happens, when the #MeToo stuff is coming out, saying this is ridiculous. How can that happen? I say, here's my opportunity to serve.

GOLDMAN: And on a deeper level, the new job fit perfectly because Marshall is a 58-year-old woman who has spent her life fixing broken things, including herself. She grew up in a housing project in Richmond, Calif. Her dad physically abused Marshall, her siblings, her mom. But Marshall thrived thanks to her innate optimism and a strong mother who, Marshall says, put a math book in one of Cynt's hands and a Bible in the other. When she was ready to start a family, four miscarriages and the death of a 6-month-old daughter led Marshall and her husband to adopt but not infants. They wanted older kids who were at greater risk of ending up without a permanent family. They have four adopted children. And then in 2010, Marshall was diagnosed with colon cancer. This is what she told her doctor.

MARSHALL: If you want to be a part of a miracle, you can continue to be my oncologist because I am going to survive this. If you don't want to be a part of a miracle, let me know and I'll get another oncologist. And he told a reporter this a couple years later. He said, I actually thought she was crazy.

GOLDMAN: But he also said he thought Cynt Marshall was the most positive woman he'd ever met. More than seven years later, she's cancer free and bringing her unbridled optimism to a workplace in need.

WHITNEY NEAL: She's created a speak-up culture, which I think is really important.

GAIL O'BANNON: What I really loved about her right off the bat is that she just listened with her heart.

ALISON PANASIK: To have someone, a female powerhouse, who was genuine come into this office was very inspiring.

GOLDMAN: Mavs employees Whitney Neal, Gail O’Bannon and Alison Panasik say in a little over two months Cynt Marshall has had a profound impact. In my conversation with them, they were reluctant to talk about the past problems. At Mavs headquarters now, it's all about moving forward. But harassment victim Melissa Weishaupt doesn't think that's enough.

WEISHAUPT: You really have to take a deep look at your past.

MARK CUBAN: The investigation will take care of all that, right?

GOLDMAN: Mavs owner Mark Cuban hired two independent investigators to study that past. Their report should be out in late June or early July. There's interest in what it will say about Cuban, the public face of the organization for the past 18 years. He's acknowledged it was a mistake when he didn't immediately fire a male employee charged with domestic violence. Beyond that, Cuban says he was blindsided by the Sports Illustrated revelations. But he's known as a very involved owner, leading some to ask how could he not have been aware of an "Animal House" culture?

CUBAN: I made mistakes, and we made a lot of mistakes as an organization, and it took a lot of courage for the women who did speak out to speak out. And I'm sure the investigators will come back and reiterate in detail what those mistakes were, and we'll learn from them.

GOLDMAN: Cynt Marshall says whatever investigators find, it won't keep her from doing her job. She's in the midst of a 100-day plan that includes the training sessions and one-on-one meetings with every Mavs employee. At the press conference in March, when Cubin introduced Marshall, she said in response to a question, I got this. The Mavericks are clinging to those words as Cynt tries to do what so many other beleaguered companies are attempting - to heal a damaged workplace. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.